We can describe the long history of the human race in three words: Warning and Lament. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been good times along the way, but so much of the human experience has been filled with warnings and lamenting about bad decisions that often lead to the collapse of society.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
Lessons from History
We know from historical records that as many as 30 major civilizations have collapsed during the past several thousand years (also called Societal collapse). That doesn’t include the countless rise and fall of tribes and smaller people groups. Some civilizations reinvented themselves while others were absorbed into other societies or disappeared.
University of Cambridge researcher and ‘collapse’ expert Luke Kemp defined the collapse of civilizations this way:
Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence. Are we on the road to civilisation collapse?
There are many books and studies about societal collapse available if you’re interested in learning more about what leads to the decline and fall of a civilization of people. The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival by Sir John Glubb, The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: Why Civilizations Rise and Fall and What Happens When They End (The Law of History) by Nicholas Hagger, and A Study of History (12 Volumes) by Arnold Toynbee are several examples.
Some historical research shows that the average lifespan of a civilization is about 340 years. Other research shows the time from rise to fall is closer to 250 years (about ten generations). Some of the research into civilization collapse (known as Collapsology) shows that while civilizations are usually slow to rise, they are often quick to fall. Though decline can take many years, the “fall” may appear to be fast to those within the civilization as well as those watching from the outside.
There are researchers who believe the United States, which as a nation just celebrated its 245th birthday, is on a trajectory toward collapse. Depending on which ‘experts’ you read, the U.S. could suffer some type of collapse or major societal change within the next ten to twenty years. If that does happen, will the American society we know be reinvented from within or absorbed by an outside society? It would seem improbable that a population of more than 330-million people would just disappear. While we might think that civilization collapse is caused by external violence, British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in his massive A Study of History that — “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”
Based on some historical research into how long civilizations last before collapse, we find that ten generations is often the number from rise to fall:
It has been shown that, normally, the rise and fall of great nations are due to internal reasons alone. Ten generations of human beings suffice to transform the hardy and enterprising pioneer into the captious citizen of the welfare state. But whereas the life histories of great nations show an unexpected uniformity, the nature of their falls depends largely on outside circumstances and thus shows a high degree of diversity … The life-expectation of a great nation, it appears, commences with a violent, and usually unforeseen, outburst of energy, and ends in a lowering of moral standards, cynicism, pessimism and frivolity. Sir John Glubb, The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival
Depending on how we define the length of generations (often about 25 years), the United States is in the middle of its tenth generation; statistically, close to the end of its decline and collapse as a society.
Question: did anyone see a societal collapse coming in past civilizations? Were there any warnings? If there were, why didn’t people heed the warnings? If there were no warnings, why not? Each civilization would probably have answered the question differently at the end, but historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and other researchers do see some common reasons for societal collapse.
Interestingly, for Bible students, the collapse process is spelled out in Revelation chapters 2 – 6:
- Moral and Religious decline (lack of belief in God, religious compromise, idolatry (including celebrity worship), sexual immorality, breakdown of family, overwhelming desire to be entertained by godless activities, overall moral decay etc)
- Kingdom Conquering (Physical invasion or civil/economic takeover from outside society, ruling class loses its will to rule and coordinates with outside forces)
- Deadly Conflicts (Within a society — increase in crime (especially by young people), lack of respect for law enforcement, government/political corruption and civil breakdown, economic collapse because of overwhelming debt and monetary collapse, racial divide, low view of importance of life, breakdown of middle class, large gap between rich and poor, civil war, etc)
- Scarcity of necessary commodities (e.g. drought which affects water and food supply, medical care, individual income, housing, power sources (e.g. electricity), transportation, personal defense against rise in crime, etc)
- Hunger (high cost of food, lack of food supply, poor soil for growing crops, corruption in food industry and government agencies, etc)
- Disease (degradation of public health through corruption and incompetence, uncontrollable epidemics, pandemics, etc)
- People who believe in Christ martyred in large numbers
- Natural Calamaties (e.g. volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, fires, wind storms, etc)
Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote this concerning the moral decay of civilizations that have collapsed — “Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.” He wrote those words many decades ago. If the United States was in moral decline decades ago, where is it now?
Interestingly, both in the Book of Revelation and in what we know about how previous civilizations have collapsed, the people usually didn’t see disaster coming. They failed to see what was in front of their eyes the entire time. While a few ‘prophets’ sounded the alarm, the vast majority of people in societies that collapsed were oblivious of what was headed toward them. They refused to believe that they and their way of life were in danger of collapse.
Here’s a summary of The Fate of Empires by its author. Compare the history of societal collapse to what you see in the history of your country:
- (a) We do not learn from history because our studies are brief and prejudiced.
- (b) In a surprising manner, 250 years emerges as the average length of national greatness.
- (c) This average has not varied for 3,000 years. Does it represent ten generations?
- (d) The stages of the rise and fall of great nations seem to be:
- The Age of Pioneers (outburst)
- The Age of Conquests
- The Age of Commerce
- The Age of Affluence
- The Age of Intellect
- The Age of Decadence
- (e) Decadence is marked by:
- An influx of foreigners
- The Welfare State
- A weakening of religion
- (f) Decadence is due to:
- Too long a period of wealth and power
- Love of money
- The loss of a sense of duty
- (g) The life histories of great states are amazingly similar, and are due to internal factors.
- (h) Their falls are diverse, because they are largely the result of external causes.
- (i) History should be taught as the history of the human race, though of course with emphasis on the history of the student’s own country.
Lessons from Israel
Israel is an interesting case study because they have a long history (about four-thousand years since Abraham) and have experienced many societal collapses, yet they still exist as a people and a nation today. Somehow they have held on to their cultural heritage even though they’ve been conquered many times, been taken captive multiple times, even been without a homeland for centuries at a time. They received multiple prophetic warnings, but refused to listen until it was too late. In fact, many prophets were silenced through imprisonment and even death. The leaders and people of Israel didn’t want to hear what the prophets had to say. When it finally became obvious to them that the prophetic warnings were correct, it was often too late to change the outcome.
When you look at the ‘collapse’ list in the first several chapters of Revelation, you are looking at the experience of Israel throughout its history. Yet, Israel continues to exist to this day. Why? Israel has something that no other nation on earth has now or has ever had — an unconditional covenant with God.
Israel has suffered greatly through the millennia because the people and leaders broke ‘conditional’ covenants with God. That means God made promises to Israel based on the people and its leaders obeying God. God warned them what would happen if they disobeyed and the people lamented greatly when God punished them for their disobedience.
Not so with God’s ‘unconditional’ covenants with Israel. That means God made promises to Israel based on His Nature and not on the people and leaders of Israel obeying God. God made unconditional covenants with Abraham and repeated them to Isaac and Jacob (Israel). He also made an unconditional covenant with David concerning his earthly throne that will be fulfilled when Jesus Christ sits on that throne in Jerusalem in the near future. It is because of those promises that Israel continues as a people today.
Christians are a people who share in God’s unconditional promises to Israel through His Son, Jesus Christ. In fact, Christians experience their blessings in Christ through the current unbelief of Israel concerning Jesus. Paul wrote about that in his letter to the Romans.
You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.’ Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree. Romans 11:19-24
Christians have had almost two-thousand years to grow as part of God’s Kingdom. Israel spent almost 1,900 of those years cast out of their land because they rejected God’s offer of salvation through their Messiah, Jesus Christ. However, God will bring Israel back and is bringing them back because of the unconditional covenants He made with Abraham and others. Paul continued in his letter:
For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins. Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. Romans 11:25-28
We will look more deeply at some of the lessons Christians and nations can learn from Israel about Warning and Lamentation: The Collapse of Civilizations in the next part of our new series.
Teaching Notes: On Genesis 18 – GraceLife Blog
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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